NLL: No Byrne, no problem as Smith, Bandits take game one of NLL Finals 

BUFFALO, NY: Buffalo Bandits v Colorado Mammoth during Game 1 of the NLL Finals at KeyBank Center on May 27th, 2022. Photo by Mike Hetzel

The stage was set. The rematch was on. Whatever terminology you’d like to use. For the second year in a row, the Colorado Mammoth and the Buffalo Bandits faced off in the NLL Finals with game one taking place in Buffalo. Hold your breath Bandits faithful, we all know how last year went and just hours before the game, Buffalo received some not-so-good news as Josh Byrne was placed on IR with an upper body injury. Fear not, because Buffalo has been injury-bitten all year and managed to get to this point.

With massive performances from Dhane Smith, Tehoka Nanticoke and Chase Fraser, the Bandits squeaked out a 13-12 victory in game one in front of 14,000+ raucous fans.

“I’m not surprised it was a one-goal game,” said Bandits head coach John Tavares. “It’s a situation I expected to be in. We can’t be satisfied, we have to be confident. Every play matters. Any opportunity we get, put the ball in the net. It makes life a lot easier when that ball crosses the goal line.”

During the course of these playoffs, Buffalo has scored quick, and often. This game was no different. Just 40 seconds into the game, Smith notched the first goal, much to the pleasure of Banditland, which as we all know, is a very tough place to play. But wait, there’s more. Buffalo rattled off three more after that, two more from Smith, giving him a hat trick in just under eight minutes and the other from Fraser. Smith’s hat trick goal was on the power play. In the blink of an eye it was 4-0 Bandits with 6:44 to play in the first. Colorado stopped the Buffalo momentum with two straight, one from Evan Downey, which was a beautiful transition goal, and the other from Ryan Lee on a cheeky bouncer from range. Smith got his fourth of the quarter, but was answered by two more from Colorado’s Zed Williams and Eli McLaughlin. 5-4 Buffalo after one.

After Buffalo scoring the first four goals of the game, would you believe it if you were told they didn’t lead at half? Well, ya better believe it. Colorado has proven they don’t just roll over. Ian MacKay notched the first goal of the second quarter with a fantastic individual effort, but Colorado answered with three straight. Scorers were Tyson Gibson, twice, one of which was on the power play, and the other from Connor Robinson, also on the power play. Brad McCulley tied the game back up for Buffalo, but Lee’s second gave Colorado the 8-7 lead going into the half.

One thing not touched on yet is the treat we had with both goaltenders. Both Matt Vinc and Dillon Ward are world class and showed why they are arguably their team’s backbones in the first half, as well as the entire game. Vinc stopped 17 of 25 and Ward made 14 saves on 21 shots.

The resiliency of the Mammoth in the second quarter was admirable, but Buffalo dominated the third as they rattled off the first four goals of the frame. Nanticoke had a huge quarter and got his first on the power play just 24 seconds in. The next three were scored by Fraser, his second, Smith, his fifth, and Nanticoke again. Fraser’s was shorthanded. McLaughlin stopped the bleeding with his second, but was answered by Nanticoke’s hat trick, another power play tally. 12-9 Buffalo after three.

The fourth was the “calmest” when it came to scoring, but Colorado certainly made it interesting. Williams got his second of the game on the power play, but was answered by Fraser’s hat trick, also on the power play. On the ensuing faceoff, Chris Wardle drove right in and scored his first of the game. McLauglin got his hat trick on the power play, but that’d be it from Buffalo. Vinc and the Bandits defense stood tall in the waning seconds to secure the win. Your final from Banditland, 13-12 Buffalo.

Players of the game for Buffalo were Smith (5+1), Nanticoke (3+2), and Fraser (three goals). MacKay had a monster game too, notching seven points. Vinc stood tall late, stopping 31 of 43 on the night. For Colorado, McLaughlin (3+3), Lee (2+4), and Williams (2+3) led the way. Ward was nothing to scoff at, but fell just short. He made 42 saves on 55 shots.

“It starts with Matt Vinc,” said Steve Priolo after the game. “Obviously he’s the greatest and he still wants to prove he’s the best in this league. We just feed off his energy. I’d do anything for that man. We’ve been here before; it means nothing.”

“I knew it was going to be a dog fight,” said Smith. “We’re going to look at film and come ready for Denver. We aren’t satisfied and we’re looking forward to the challenge. We wanted to dictate, and I think we did that tonight.”

“That’s sort of what we’ve been playing so far in the playoffs,” said Pat Coyle. “Last year was the same, it’s sort of what we expected, we knew it was going to be really hard. “We’ve got an experienced group and we know it’s a long game. Just being a little healthier makes a big difference.”

No, you aren’t having deja vu. This is eerily similar to last year, with Buffalo taking game one of the NLL Finals on their home floor against Colorado. Will the Bandits get their revenge and capture their elusive fifth championship? There’s no rest for the wicked as game two is Monday May 29th – Memorial Day – at 4 p.m. from Ball Arena in Denver.